Director – Christopher Nolan
Cast – Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh
Rating – 5/5
The moments spent in anticipation immediately before a new Christopher Nolan movie are often just as nerve-wracking as those spent watching the film.
An irresistible energy buzzes through your body as you collapse into your grimy seat – a hypnotic mix of nervousness, fear, paranoia, and careful optimism.
This is a pilgrimage, after all. To some, Nolan is a god, and his temple’s walls, dark and foreboding, seem to push in as the lights go down. Your senses, usually dulled by a mundane existence, are heightened. You’ve never experienced anything like it.
The crowd’s hushed tones hit you in waves, and even the most distant whisper is deafening – but it reassures as much as it startles. There are others like you. And like you, they’ve waited years for this moment. You are not alone. And the electricity you’ve created – together – in the cavernous place of worship, could power a small town.
I have experienced this sensation on four occasions, before four Christopher Nolan films, and each of those experiences were, and remain to this day, some of the most special I’ve had inside a movie theatre.
And yesterday, it happened again.
Dunkirk, a film about men, created by men, is a force of nature – an elemental beast of a movie about finding the meaning of life surrounded by the meaninglessness of war. It is an existential masterpiece set across three parallel plots destined to collide, which in turn are set on three planes of existence – earth, air, and water. To us, these elements symbolise life, but in Dunkirk, they might as well be harbingers of death, having suspended our characters in their purgatory as they await judgment.
On the land, in the seaside French town of Dunkirk, 400,000 soldiers have been pushed by ‘the enemy’ – curiously, not once are the Nazis mentioned – towards the sea. They wait, bombarded from behind, and up above, for deliverance. Before them lies a seemingly endless expanse of blue – and home, England, is practically within sight, across the choppy waters of the Channel. They go from boat to boat – some even conning their way onto the rickety barges – desperate to get off the cursed beach, as torpedoes attack them from below, and missiles rain like hellfire from the sky.
They’re in need of a miracle.
But help is on its way. Tom Hardy protects them from above, acting, like he did in The Dark Knight Rises, through a mask, and only with his eyes. And his eyes are all he needs to convey the (sometimes scarily suicidal) determination to save his countrymen, as he picks off one Luftwaffe fighter after another – even as his wingmen perish, and his fuel gauge begs him to stop.
Below him, on the water, a civilian Mark Rylance has commandeered a boat, one of the many deployed by the Navy in an effort to aid the evacuation process. With his teenage son, and his son’s eager friend in tow – but without a firm plan – he sails into war.
And with the precision of a watchmaker – time is an oft-repeated motif in the film – Nolan, a master working at the peak of his powers, puts the pieces of this jigsaw together with some of his most effortless editing since Inception. And like Inception, as layer after layer of Dunkirk’s nesting doll structure is uncovered, and when the three stories finally converge after almost two hours of merciless tension, the emotional release is pure ecstasy.
Often, in order to build this tension, the experimental work of genius that it is, Dunkirk spends long stretches in silence. DP Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX camera, taking a break from soaring across the skies, wrestling for space among thousands of men, and gazing placidly at the sheer beauty of it all, brings the actors’ faces inches from its own. And these fine performers – mostly young stars (Harry Styles included) – convey wordlessly the torment raging in their characters’ minds.
But because of these periods of silence, and because of Nolan’s refusal to rely on words (or, for that matter, a traditional structure) to tell his story, Hans Zimmer’s terrific score becomes crucial, and slowly, emerges as a character in its own right. Like the film, it is unrelentingly intense, stretched to breaking point as it conjures tension seemingly from nothing.
And such is Nolan’s power at commanding the attention of his audience, that you find yourself overlooking basic flaws. There isn’t a single character in this film that is properly fleshed out, and it fails miserably at the Bechdel Test. But never have these glaring missteps mattered less.
Do you remember what Bruce Wayne said at the end of The Dark Knight Rises? Moments before flying into certain death, he looked at Commissioner Gordon, and growled, “A hero can be anyone.”
And this is the sentiment that Nolan has carried into Dunkirk. These characters aren’t meant to have elaborate backstories or complicated motivations. They’re meant to represent an ideal. They’re meant to embody our bravery and our empathy and our kindness.
A hero can be anyone, from a middle-aged sailor who just wants to teach his son to do the right thing, to a decorated commander who refuses to leave until every last man who serves under him – or even if he doesn’t – has been saved.
Dunkirk is one of the greatest war movies ever made – it’s certainly the tightest, most unwaveringly propulsive film of Christopher Nolan’s career. But it’s also as meditative as The Thin Red Line, as brutal as Saving Private Ryan, and sometimes, even as surreal as Apocalypse Now.
It deserves to be seen big and loud.
Watch the Dunkirk trailer here